Sunday, March 26, 2017

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 22: Bling on Tombs

  Efffigy tombs of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries always show people dolled up in their finest, adorned with various kinds of bling. Sure, they want to be looking their best when they arise at that last trump, but every item of expensive decoration embodies some kind of message about that person's position and role in society. It is a form of communication; a readable code.

  Effigies of ladies of the 13th or very early 14th centuries tended to all be very similarly dressed with a flowing gown and simple head covering, often with a wimple. The fact they they were depicted as large tomb effigies at all was sufficient testimony to their status. Most tombs of this vintage have been knocked around a bit, moved, and lost their colouring and gilding. They are ghosts of their former selves. The two ladies above are from Tideswell in Derbyshire.

  It has been said that fashion was invented in the early 14th century, with clothing styles for men and women undergoing rapid change. Having the very latest in fashions was an insignia of not only wealth, but status and influence. If the missus was dressed in the latest crazy headgear and sleeves with a million buttons, then she was not only rich, she undoubtedly had someone to help her get dressed in the morning, like this lady from Bothamsall in Nottinghamshire.

  In the days of sumptuary laws, if she was togged out in imported brocade, she was guaranteed to be of a certain status in the social hierarchy. The above is a replica of the brass to Margaret Peyton (1484) in Isleham, Cambridgeshire. These fashions changed so rapidly that the makers of effigies, whether brass or sculpted stone, were constantly updating their designs to keep up. Where the tomb has an inscription it is possible to create a chronology for these fashion changes but in the absence of one, I have doubts about identifying the tomb owner by cross referencing the date of death with the fashion design. It may date the effigy accurately, but it would depend on whether it was made before death (It's been done.), immediately after or some years after.

  Here is a bit of gratuitous female bling from Methley, Yorkshire, because bling looks so good in alabaster. Amazing hat.

  Something similar happened over the same period with the depiction of knights. The example above is an early 14th century effigy from West Tanfield, Yorkshire, turned out in chain mail. The evolution to plate armour and beyond took place as a series of specific details which resulted in a very different final result. Funerary effigies depicted these changing details of body armour, sword belts, shields, spurs in intricate detail.


  This knight from Harpham, Yorkshire, displays the lean, clean and mean look of full plate armour of the early 15th century, apart from the frivolous crown of feathers on his helmet.

  Some later depictions, such as this late 15th century knight from Howden, Yorkshire, have strangely exaggerated features of some parts of their armour, as if the novel features were being emphasised. As with the ladies, although armour can be dated stylistically, it probably dates the manufacture of the effigy rather than the demise of its owner. The medieval art tradition generally had a strange anachronistically modern approach. Alexander the Great's armies wore 15th century armour if they were depicted in a 15th century chronicle, as did King Arthur's knights.
  Armour, at one level, might not be considered technically bling. It was practical attire to stop you getting murdered in battle. It was, however, very much a sign of status. Being entitled to a suit of armour meant you were entitled to risk getting yourself murdered for the king. You had rank. There is nothing to say that the actual practical armour that your average knight kept in case they had to clobber the French again was as perfectly in synchronicity with fashion as the one they were depicted with on their tomb. By the Tudor period, upwardly mobile city merchants who were granted knightly status ordered a suit of armour to prop up in the banqueting hall, just to show.

  Heraldry was bling, and also subject to the rapid elaboration over those competitive centuries as seen in clothing and armour. A simple coat of arms on a shield may have sufficed in the early 14th century, but these were often depicted in a colouful and blingy way. This battered brass of a knight from Gorleston in Suffolk bears a small shield that has a roughened surface to hold enamels or resins to display the heraldic colours.

  This brass from Chesterfield has gone the full monty. Terrible photo, sorry. Because of the way tombs have been messed around over time, sometimes the full heraldic bling is not preserved as it could include arms on the tomb chest, in an archway or above a niche. The whole ensemble is often not in its original condition. Somebody versed in the arcane language of heraldic depiction could tell a whole story of family fortune from the brass above.

  A significant bit of knightly bling was the livery collar, becoming apparent during the Wars of the Roses, supposedly to indicate where loyalties lay: SS for Lancaster, suns and roses for York and S with roses for the Tudors to show we are all lovey again. The above examples all come from Harewood church in Yorkshire.  If they really show loyalties, this mob did tend to go with the flow. They are sometimes found on female tombs as well, as in the example from Methley above. There is a difficulty in interpreting the significance of these. They are taken to indicate allegiance. In contradictory mode, they are often used for dating, identifying the precise owner of the effigy by the reign of the monarch that they died in. Both cannot be correct. If everyone had been on the side of the current winners, there would have been no war. Perhaps it didn't show so much which side they were actually on, but how their descendants wanted them to be remembered.

  They were not all fraught with royal controversy. This example from Ripon in Yorkshire wears a collar depicting a deer within a park, a local badge of the Markenfield family. He evidently preferred to advertise his big fish in a smaller pond status.

  Certain styles of bling denoted particular offices. This battered effigy in Eastrington, Yorkshire, wears the robe and coif of a judge over the suit of armour of a knight; not a combination he would have worn in real life. He really wanted to hit the viewer with all his status symbols.

  A mayor of Norwich flaunts his fur lined ceremonial robe and beads, significata of office.

  If you didn't rate a suit of armour, you could advertise your significance with the size of your purse, as with this civilian tomb in Ashover, Derbyshire. Presumably this was meant to indicate the amount you were prepared to give to charity for the benefit of your immortal soul, but a purse that size is definitely bling. They kind of missed that bit about the camel and the eye of a needle in the middle ages.

  Even at slightly less elevated levels of society, a bit of bling denoted special status. This rather lumpy battered effigy from Wadworth, Yorkshire, carries a hunting horn, symbolic of his role as a forester. In less complex tombs, symbols such as swords, chalice and paten, keys, shears and the like serve as a communication system for information about the status of the deceased.

  The ultimate bit of swank was if your dog was wearing bling. This fine hunting dog, a status symbol in itself (Hey, you didn't have a dog that could bring down a deer unless you were entitled to hunt the deer.), on a knightly alabaster tomb in Halsham church, Yorkshire, was probably sporting some real bling in his heyday.
  In the religious community, clothing and bling had very specific references to the status and function of the wearer, but that is a story for another day.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cutting Up Manuscripts

  Recently I posted on Twitter a photograph of an isolated medieval manuscript leaf that I own, from a 15th century book of hours. This is all part of the monster process of organising my digital photographic material and easing back into my paleography project which sits forlornly on the website Medieval Writing looking old and daggy because I ran out of energy for keeping up with technological change. This particular leaf had a cursive addendum which I couldn't make out. Here it is.

  This is the bit of added script.

  A keen eyed reader not only transcribed it for me (Pascarii episcopi nannetensis), but recognised the manuscript from which it had been removed, an unusual book of hours from Brittany; not exceptionally fancy or lavish, but which had contained much information about Breton usage. He had tracked down some other leaves from the manuscript, which had been dismantled and sold leaf by leaf by the bookseller from whom I bought my sample.
  I bought a largish number of single manuscript leaves and fragments in the late 1990s, early 2000s to use as exemplars for various aspects of paleography and book design in the Medieval Writing project. At that time, collections of good quality manuscript images on the internet were sparse, and many of them had ferocious restrictions on any sort of re-use. The project mostly relied on old black and white photographs. My budget was modest, so pages, fragments and bits were all that could be acquired.
  Manuscripts have been pulled apart over many centuries. Some of the bits I bought were bookbinders' scraps used in early modern printed books. No respect shown back then. People have chopped out miniatures and initials from old manuscripts since at least the 19th century, leaving the less ornate pages to the oddball collectors' market. I tried to only buy what appeared to be orphaned bits and avoided sellers obviously dismantling books, but a couple of sellers clearly bided their time and only released the odd page at a time. I now know who they are and so does my Twitter correspondent.

  Even fragments can contain a great deal of information when it comes to learning about manuscripts, texts, decorations and illustrations, and how they were assembled and used. The above is a calendar leaf from a different French book of hours containing a load of coded information. Plenty to discuss there.

  An isolated leaf can give information about how manuscripts were made, such as the example from a book of hours above where the initials have not yet been filled in and the prickings are still visible on the untrimmed page.

    They can show some of the tricks of the bookmaker's trade, such as catchwords at the end of a quire to show how the quires should be assembled.

  They can indicate how readers used their books, as in the two sides of this leaf from a book of hours, one side of which shows an image of Veronica's handkerchief which has been much smudged with use and the other shows prayers added into a blank leaf in the cursive hand of the owner.
  So many of the leaves I have acquired show corrections, carried out by various means, that it is easy to debunk the myth that manuscript copies had to be perfect or the scribe was cursed to hell. Either that or there is one hell of a scribal party going on down there.
  The process of pulling manuscripts apart for educational purposes cannot be discussed without reference to Otto Ege, who, in the 1940s, dismantled 50 medieval manuscripts and put individual leaves from them in teaching sets which were then sold to educational institutions. (Click here for a quick description, just google him to find out the various places they got to and where you can see some of them.) Most of the leaves in his sets are from liturgical books, which have been regarded as very stereotyped, not of great individual interest textually, but there is still much to learn from the individualities of books from different regions or traditions. Great efforts are being made to reassemble those manuscripts, in the virtual world if not in actuality, as naturally there is even more to be learned from the whole than from isolated parts.
  Before getting overwrought about the collecting of fragments, just think about how access to these things has changed in very recent decades. Complete medieval books have, over the centuries, crept from the exclusive library collections of the rich and aristocratic to august public institutions. In Britain, some of those private collections were salvaged from monastic libraries at the Dissolution, when they would have otherwise been destroyed. Even in major public institutions, access to these can be difficult and book reproductions of photographs of them have been expensive to acquire and produce. As with much medieval art, there is a tendency for book publishers to reproduce the same pictures over and over again, leading to a false concept of just how much of this stuff there is around.
  Fragments, acquired relatively cheaply and circulated in classrooms and seminars, have provided a sense of reality, and possibly a more accurate perception of the nature and variety of medieval manuscript material than the arty tomes. Not every book of hours was illustrated by the Limbourg brothers. This is not an endorsement of the procedure of cutting up manuscripts, however. Many more options are available if we use them properly. Library collections are being steadily digitised and the restrictions on usage of the images is being eased by major institutions.

  A left handed would be scribe copies from a genuine medieval exemplar (carefully covered in plastic) at a paleography school in 1996 at the University of Tasmania, conducted by Christopher de Hamel.

  Something similar applies to isolated examples of legal documents, such as the Elizabethan final concord shown above. These also float about on the collectors' market. They can be used to indicate the nature, form and wording of documents of a particular type, but they are usually just one step in the legal process of a case, and don't make a lot of historical sense unless placed with other documents pertaining to the case. Mind you, this contextualisation of documents can be a problem in archival collections as well. If you ask a medieval historian what they did with the medieval legal document collections in the National Archives in London when they recatalogued them in the 19th century, take a box of tissues with you. I believe I have seen British Library catalogue entries for boxes of charters which are not even identified individually.

  Cutting up has occurred in this market too. The French deed of sale above has had the seal hacked off, because there are folks who collect seals.
  I think one answer to the problem is that libraries and institutions which are digitising and distributing images of manuscripts need to concentrate a bit more on the nature of the texts and the way they are written, and not focus quite so strongly on the pretty manuscripts with beautiful illuminations and decorations. These are lovely. We all adore them. But they don't show the diversity of the same text in different manuscripts within this tradition. They don't indicate the range of quality of handwritten copies. They don't show the regional variations and why a scruffy little volume may be of value in its entirety because of its content. And please, put up some more document collections in a freely available format, because these are part of the history of writing as a process.
  Those wonderful academics who post segments from the manuscript tradition on social media could also occasionally venture away from their killer bunnies, monstrous beasties and medieval donuts to show something of why the writing on these manuscripts is interesting and important. It just might inform people as to why chopping a text up into bits and dispersing it is a loss of historical information. Those marginalia bits are fascinating, but the folks posting them understand their context. To many less esoterically educated viewers they are digital cuttings. Fortunately if you collect them in your Tumblr or Pinterest scrapbook, you do no harm to the original.
  It is notable that the British Library has recently digitised the Paston Letters and the Book of Margery Kempe, both collections of writings of words, not art galleries on vellum. More power to them. The National Archives in London has digitised a large collection of wills, but you have to pay for each one you download. This is not helpful if you are not looking things up by personal or place name, but wish to scour through a lot of documents for reference to something in particular, like ownership and disposal of books. Yes, it involves masses of work and a lot of money, but these projects are being done at an ever increasing rate, so it would be nice if they included some diversity of content.

  So there should be no excuse for chopping up manuscripts for profit these days. They can be made available to all without dismembering them. Meanwhile, there is probably still a point in collecting up the genuine orphans, binding fragments and unregarded scraps. You never know what question we might want to ask next. Meanwhile, one little Florentine initial will never find its way home, but at least I liberated it from the piece of brown non-archival cardboard that was eating it from the back.

  Thanks to Jean-Luc Deuffic for the transcription and for inspiring me to write this piece.